Monthly Archives: June 2015

Care

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 24 June)

We all know that the National Health Service, that cornerstone of British well-being since the end of the Second World War, is in crisis. What to do about it seems to be up to the politicians and the financiers with the views and experiences of its practitioners and patients apparently taken into rather less account.

Hence Care, the latest Tangled Feet production, which is part of Watford Big Festival and has taken over the Palace Theatre’s backstage and stage for both the show and its audience. We become waiters in a hospital’s out-patient department, sitting quietly on uncomfortable chairs until something happens.

The story itself has three main characters – research surgeon Dr Papadopoulos (Mario Christofides), staff nurse Harry (Leon Smith) and over-worked, over-stretched cleaner Rita (Fiona Watson). As their individual dramas play out amid much shifting of hospital screens and beds (the design concept is by Naomi Dawson with direction by Nathan Curry and Kat Joyce) the action takes in acrobatics and an element of surrealism.

We learn that Rita suffers from blinding headaches which no-one takes seriously until it’s too late. Harry is frustrated by staffing shortfalls and overlong shifts. Papdopoulos is increasingly involved in balancing the books (as management demands) while trying to do the best by his patients and research requirements. An outside financial consultant, wished on him by the men in grey suits rather than those in surgical overalls, simply complicates his life.

Cristina Catalina and Gemma Creasey complete the main cast with a hard-working state management team handling the aerial sequences and projections. There are some clever lighting effects by Katherine Williams but the weight of the story remains withits human protagonists. “Patients are not a commodity” states one airborne character, literally spinning herself into knots as she twists and turns on a rope. But is that true any more?

Care runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 28 June.

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Filed under Circus & physical theatre, Reviews 2015

Jump the queue season in Hornchurch

The Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch is not the only one feeling the financial pinch, but it has obviously affected the number of main-house shows which its resident company cut to the chase… can mount each season. The Jump the Queue initiative, by which audience members who book in advance can see all three shows just announced for autumn 2015 at a bargain price of £12.50 each, therefore presents a bargain offer.

All three offer contrasts in style. First is Roll Over Beethoven by Bob Eaton. This is a stage world première loosely (very loosely) based on Hamlet. It’s a rock’n’roll musical, a forte of this company of actor-musicians, and you can see it between 21 August and 12 September. The setting is Essex and the time is the 1950s, when National Service was still a young man’s duty.

That is followed by Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias (18 September to 10 October). As the blurb says: “Never underestimate the strength of a woman”. Again, we are taken back in time – this is set n the 1980s and the location is Louisiana. Neil Leyshon’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s spooky novella Don’t Look Now concludes the season from 23 October to 14 November. And then, of course, it’s panto time with Aladdin; his adventures are from 28 November through to 9 January.

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Constellations

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 16 June)

The Royal Court Theatre’s production of Nick Payne’s one-act play Constellations might have been tailor-made for the Cambridge leg of its 2015 tour. When we enter the theatre, we see that the black stage is festooned with large matt and luminous white balloons, suspended by the sort of knotty silver chain to create an impression of the sort of 3D diagram physicists favour when discussing the working of the cosmos to a television lay audience (design is by Tom Scutt).

We meet two characters, both young. Marianne (Louise Brearley) is a scientist; she employs a chat-up line one which one would imagine is designed to kill any possibility of a flirtation stone dead. Roland (Joe Armstrong) is on the surface a simpler soul; he keeps bees for a living. Eventually they do set up home together, but that takes a number of twists and misunderstandings before Marianne is diagnosed with cancer.

Payne’s dialogue is razor-brilliant, with exchanges between his two characters overlapping and repeated with subtle changes of syntax and meaning. You need to keep wide awake as the story unfolds; there’s no time allowed by Michael Longhurst’s well-paced production for wool-gathering.

Brearley has the more difficult role of the two actors, for Marianne is – at any rate initially – not the most sympathetic of people. One feels perhaps more for Armstrong’s character, though Roland has his own complexities. Both thoroughly deserve the applause the first night audience awarded them, partly for never slipping in the dialogue but mainly for the sheer commitment of their performances.

Constellations runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 20 June.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015

Summer seaside theatre – preview 2

Tucked away on the north Norfolk coast between Wells-Next-The-Sea and Cromer (think of all those delicious crabs and lobsters for which this stretch of coast is renowned) is Sheringham. Under Debbie Thompson its Little Theatre is a thriving concern, though suffering from the usual funding crises.

The programme for this year’s summer repertory season has been announced. It was preceded between 1 and 6 June by a fund-raising production – most appropriately – of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. The 55th summer season itself opens on 21 July with Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, directed by theatre patron Desmond Barrit; the cast includes Paul Lavers. That runs until 28 July.

Between 30 July and 5 August the mood changes with that classic thriller The Late Edwina Black, a wife who seeks revenge from beyond her deathbed. Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce from 7 to 18 August is directed by another of the theatre’s patrons, Nicky Henson. The comedy Perfect Wedding by Robin Hawdon is the penultimate production between 20 and 29 August.

Another classic, Noël Coward’s Private Lives, brings the summer season at the Little Theatre to a close from 1 to 5 September. It is directed by the third of the theatre’s patrons Peter Craze.

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Summer seaside theatre – preview 1

East Anglia boasts three well-established summer repertory seasons. First of the mark this year is Suffolk Summer Theatres, founded by Jill Freud and now managed by Peter Adshead. The season begins on 8 July at St Edmund’s Hall, Southwold with Alan Ayckbourn’s How the Other Half Loves. It runs until 18 July and transfers from 23 July to 1 August at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh.

it’s followed by a change of mood with the comedy thriller Anybody For Murder? by Brian Clemens and Dennis Spooner. That on between 20 July and 1 August in Southwold and from 4 to 8 August in Aldeburgh. Then it’s the turn of Ray Cooney’s fizzing farce Out of Order, at Southwold from 3 to 15 August and Aldeburgh between 18 and 22 August.

One of Suffolk Summer Theatre’s previous successes was the staging of The Titfield Thnderbolt by TEB Clarke, based on the class Ealing comedy film. it’s being revived at the Jubilee Hall between 10 and 15 August, then transfers to Southwold from 17 to 29 August.

The season ends with Daphne du Maurier’s September Tide, a family drama set on the Cornish coast which its author so loved. Once more this opens in Aldeburgh between 24 and 29 August before journeying up the coast to Southwold from 31 August until 12 September.

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Shakespeare in Suffolk

(reviewed at the St Peter by the Waterfront arts centre on 11 June)

As its contribution to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Open Stages 2013-16 initiative and in conjunction with Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre’s annual Open Season, Black and White Productions have premièred Suzanne Hawkes’ Shakespeare in Suffolk.

I suspect that the problems inherent in managing a theatrical company haven’t changed very much from Greece and Rome to the Elizabethan and modern times. Actors throw hissy fits, voices give our at the wrong moment, too much drink can be inappropriately consumed, playwrights fuss over distortion to their finely-honed lines, sponsors demand something more than expected – the list is endless.

Hawkes presents us with a company on tour in Suffolk in the late 16th century. Her research has shown that companies with which Shakespeare was associated did indeed tour Suffolk at the appropriate dates, usually when plague threatened London, or the Puritan City fathers once more closed the playhouses, or while the court was on summer progress.

So we’re in a sequence of taverns. Henry IV has been a great success, though its Falstaff Will Kempe is somewhat at loggerheads with the author, not to mention the other senior members of the company. Richard Burbage and Henry Condell have their work cut out to keep the peace; finding a boy actor at short notice when the voice of the current player of female roles suddenly breaks doesn’t help.

Shakespeare has his own worries, wife and family (chiefly feisty daughter Susannah) among them. Then there’s his father, John Shakespeare, a wheeler-dealer who’s come a cropper – not for the first time. And somehow Christopher Marlowe turns up to plague him even further. You’ll gather that there’s a fair amount of time-shifting involved in all this.

The author plays the innkeeper Mistress Slowbody and is is also her own director. That’s something which lays its own traps. The play would benefit, in my opinion, by some judicious pruning. But the concept is a fascinating one and gives the impression that this is probably what it would have been like at that time and place.

Shakespeare in Suffolk is at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich on 14, 20 and 21 June.

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Shrek

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 10 June)

“Once upon a time…” usually leads to an ending along the lines of “…and they all lived happily ever after”. It’s the bits in between, of course, which make the real story – not its bookends. Shrek, as you probably know, started off as an illustrated children’s book in 1990, was turned into an animated film by DreamWorks in 2001; this is turn became the stage musical currently on a national tour.

Film into theatre doesn’t always work. The production values which tour director Nigel Harman has harnessed for the David Lindsay-Abaire and Jeanine Tesori piece are, to put it mildly, lavish. Tim Hatley’s sets, costumes, masks and puppet design are all splendid and the hard-working cast do them justice.

Dean Chisnall is the ogre who eventually does find his princess – but not by metamorphosing into a handsome prince. The audience is on his side right from the start. Faye Brookes as Fiona, slightly underpowered vocally, is a red-haired spitfire, the cantankerous side of feisty. Idriss Kargbo plays the street-wise, know-all Donkey, Sancho Panza to Shrek’s Don Quixote.

The villain of the story is Lord Farquaad, cleverly played on his knees with puppet legs and much cloak-swirling by Gerard Casey. The Dragon, manipulated by four bunraku-style handlers, is a triumph while Josh Prince’s choreography takes full advantage of the padded, glittering and gleaming nature of the dancers’ costumes.

Children of all ages who have grown up with the book and the film will love it. I rather suspect that their seniors will also enjoy it.

Shrek runs as the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 28 June.

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Filed under Musicals, Reviews 2015

The Pirates of Penzance

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 9 June)

Sasha Regan’s all-male staging of the much-loved Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance is closer in spirit and appearance to a Matthew Bourne production, such as his mainly male Swan Lake, than to a pure drag show.

Designer Robyn Wilson-Owen has created a nice blend of late 19th century white gowns when the hard-working ensemble portray Major-General Stanley’s bevy of wards with little attempt to disguise the arm muscles, hair-styles or facial features of the singer-actor-dancers. As pirates, they also wear white with a flamboyant waistcoat to differentiate Neil Moors’ Pirate King and a modest jerkin for Samuel Nunn’s Frederic.

Miles Western’s Major-General is natty in scarlet coat, white breeches and gleaming black boots; he also manages the tongue-twisting two patter songs very well. If Alex Weatherhill’s Ruth carries off the acting honours, it is Alan Richardson’s Mabel, with a seemingly effortless ability to sing coloratura embellishments who wins the vocal stakes.

Mabel is flanked by a finely differentiated quartet of “sisters” – Chris Theo Cook, Dale Page, Ben Irish and Richard Russell Edwards; their corresponding pirate persona are equally well played. Lizzi Gee’s choreography is inventive while not above taking a couple of side-swipes at G & S conventions.

Pirate King Moos is a genial sort of cove, a trifle light-voiced perhaps for the role. The platoon of police, with their blue shirts and lorgnette moustaches, are led by James Waud; both “When the foeman bares his steel” and “when a felon’s not engaged” make their proper impact and proved near-showstoppers.

Most of Gilbert’s (to 21st century ears) excruciating puns are left intact. The score is a piano reduction with musical director David Griffiths at audience level in the orchestra pit; the a cappella “Hail, poetry” is particularly fine. Some of the shifts between registers, particularly falsetto and natural voice, lie a trifle awkwardly; Nunn and Weatherhill wandered off-key in their “Oh! false one” exchange.

If you’re an old-school G & S purist, wedded to the old D’Oyly Carte Company style, you may not enjoy this type of production. But if you take an open mind to it, there’s much to savour. And – these days – what a treat to hear people humming the tunes as they leave the theatre.

The Pirates of Penzance plays at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 13 June and at the Hackney Empire between 24 and 28 June.

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Filed under Opera, Reviews 2015

I, Malvolio

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 6 June)

For a modern audience with post-Elizabethan sensibilities, Shakespeare’s treatment of Shylock in the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice and – albeit to a lesser degree – of Malvolio in Twelfth Night is uncomfortable. We find it difficult to laugh at forced conversions or at insanity.

Tim Crouch takes us into the twisted world of that admittedly overweening steward Malvolio. Crouch is dangerously intense as he manipulates his audience with a mixture of cajolery and derision. Wearing tattered and stained long-johns, yellow stockings snaking down his legs, his head covered by a lappeted cap crowned with a cuckhold’s horns and brandishing the letter which has been his downfall, he combines ridiculousness with the menacing.

Various audience members are lured into increasing his humiliation; that’s so that Crouch can turn each situation on its head to make us ashamed that we have been laughing at each predicament. When he finally resumes the clothes appropriate to his status in Olivia’s household, they are as distorted as Malvolio’s warped mind which we recognise as both inherent and provoked. it’s a disturbing piece.

Pulse 2015 ended on 6 June.

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Wot? No Fish!!

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Studio on 6 June)

Pulse 2015 ended with an exceptionally moving family story, a true one. Bread & Circuses’s Nick Philippou directs Danny Braverman’s Wot? No Fish!! with the subtlety the story demands. Braverman has the audience eating out of his hand from the very beginning as we are offered that traditional (and delicious) Jewish delicacy, fish balls. Their significance becomes apparent later.

Braverman’s great-uncle Ab Solomons drew sketches each week on the pay packet he handed to his wife Celie. They were themselves of refugee families, escaping from the late 19th century lash of pogroms which disfigured Tsarist Russia and the new German empire alike. The marriage produced two children, both boys, and both children refused to conform to the norm.

One worked in an art gallery in the West End, far from Whitechapel, Dalston or Golders Green, let alone Hampstead Garden Suburb.The other was what we would nowadays classify as autistic. In the 1920s and ’30s, such a difficult youth as Larry approaching full manhood would be sent to a lunatic asylum, which is what happened. His parents made an awkward visit each week, usually bringing food (hence the title when, on one occasion, the goodie-basket failed to reveal any fish balls and their accompanying sauce).

We see these remarkable sketches and caricatures on a screen, as Braverman recounts the family history and humanises the people they represent with selected photographs. There is a special poignancy about the later sketches showing the ageing couple performing the Friday night rituals alone, without either of their sons or even a neighbour to join them. As painless history lessons go, this is at the top of my list.

Pulse 2015 ended on 6 June.

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Two new arts festivals

East Anglia at times seems to be bubbling over with arts festivals. No sooner as Pulse subsided in Ipswich than along comes Lights Up! at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester between 17 June and 12 July.

This is designed to showcase new and developed work from drama and other students as well as some of the town’s established amateur companies.Come Fly With Us opens proceedings from 17 to 20 June and is succeeded on 25 and 26 June by Christine: The Musical, Tony Franchi and Marion Wells’ take on Christine Keeler’s story; this was successfully premièred by CTM Productions a couple of years ago at Headlong Theatre.

A mixture of poetry, choral singing and instrumental music presented by the Colchester branch of the Royal British Legion pays tribute to the dead of the First World War on 27 June – Emortuus – The Fallen. The next day a cast of over 70 children and teenagers from the Theatrical Performing Arts School offer Peter Pan in the musical version by Jimmy Jewell and Nick Stimson.

21 years of the Lorraine George School of Dancing & Performing Arts is celebrated between 3 and 5 July with Summer Showtime ’15. A Mercury Studio success from last year, Stage Write’s Living With Luke, is a powerful study of a father trying to cope with an autistic son; catch it on 8 July. 9 July offers an evening of contemporary folk and blues from Laburnum Bridge with Ramon Goose and Adrian Nation.

Senior students from Theatre Fun Academy perform the new musical Milenka on 11 July. It follows the adventures of two young friends with a travelling theatre and some not-quite-ordinary marionettes. The appropriately titled End of Year Show from Stagecoach Chelmsford brings Lights Up! to a close on 12 July. Ticket prices range from £10 to £15, with concessionary discounts available.

Imagine Watford and Watford Live have, up to now, been separate celebrations for the twon. Now they have combined as The Big Festival, which runs between 20 June and 5 July. It will mix Watford Live’s promotion of local people’s artistic talent (everything from guerilla knitting – no, I haven’t come across this before either – to live music) with Imagine Watford’s kaleidoscope of international street theatre.

The Watford Colosseum is presenting Listen from 2 to 4 July. This involves music machines, sound installations and some rather surprising performances. The public are invited to play and roam as well as listen; it’s the brain-child of Graeme Leak. Care {20-21, 23-28 June) from Tangled Feet is the first of Imagine Watford’s presentations; The Strange Travel of Senyor Tonet follows (25-30 June).

Look our also for the Watford Society circus workshop on 27 June, Circus Raj and Lucas Jet Circus – both on 2 July, the aerial crane piece K@osmos by Puja! on 2 July, Citizen Squid from Puppets With Guts (3 July) and The Monotone Man (3 and 4 July), a Human Zoo Company creation. The outdoor performances are held on The Parade and the vast majority are free to watch and enjoy.

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Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)

(reviewed at the Jerwood DanceHouse, Ipswich on 1 June)

Lost Dog bills Ben Duke’s show as based on Milton’s epic poem. You can add a brisk canter through both the Old and New Testaments to that, though owing more to Monty Python than to Wycliffe or Thomas Cranmer. Duke begins with the sort of faux-naïf introduction which always sets my teeth on edge; there’s an art to pretend bumbling which he hasn’t yet quite mastered.

It all takes a long time to get going with musical snatches of everything from Handel to Philip Glass via Richard Strauss and Janis Joplin played at a near-ear splitting volume. The water deluge is effective (one feels heartily relieved not to be on the stage management team for this show) and so is some of the subversion of received texts.

Unfortunately it’s not always clear just what the individual mime sequences are meant to represent. The running time is something over an hour; someone needs to cast a cold directorial eye on the piece – and then wield a sharp pair of scissors.

Pulse continues in Ipswich at various venues until 6 June.

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Filed under Ballet & dance, Reviews 2015

Idiot-Syncrasy

(reviewed at the Jerwood DanceHouse, Ipswich on 1 June)

It’s all enagingly apparently so simple. Two young men, wearing tank-tops, jeans and trainers stand side by side in front of three stepped white curtains. Their eyes keep contact with those of their audience; they sing a short phrase then, after a pause, another. And another. Very very slowly a foot rhythm accompaniment develops.

This is turn enlarges itself into a toe-heel stomp; Igor Urzelai and Moreno Solinas remaining all the time side by side. The stomping continues as they begin to shift position – behind each other, behind the curtains, into the auditorium. Tops and jeans, socks and shoes are neatly discarded (the rhythm never falters) to reveal tee-shirts and beach shorts.

Finally the performers engage face to face, embrace and ride piggyback. The influences are apparently Basque and Sardinian folk traditions; I sensed also something of native Latin American and African tribal dance and can’t be the only audience members forcibly reminded of the ritual elements in Le sacré du printemps.

The show’s title – Idiot-Syncrasy – sums it up with self-deprecatingly charm.if it steps into a theatre near you, it’s worth your while to catch it.

The Pulse Festival continues in Ipswich until 6 June.

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